Democrats look to repeal New Mexico’s old abortion law

Rep. Joanne Ferrary

Heartened by their near sweep at the polls earlier this month, New Mexico Democrats are renewing an effort to repeal a decades-old state law that bans abortion except in narrow circumstances.

The 1969 statute, which makes it a fourth-degree felony for physicians to perform the procedure except in cases of rape, incest or likely birth defects, or to protect the life of the mother, has remained on the books but unenforceable since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade.

But with a shift to the right on the nation’s highest court and the future of federal abortion rights in question, reproductive-rights activists and Democratic legislators in the state say maintaining New Mexico’s relatively regulation-free abortion landscape is a high priority.

“We feel a sense of urgency about repealing this old, outdated statute and cleaning up our books so that no matter what happens at the federal level, New Mexico women can continue to make those personal decisions for themselves,” said Erin Armstrong, a reproductive-rights lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, one of several abortion-rights groups lobbying for the repeal.

State Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, is spearheading that effort in the Roundhouse as the sponsor of a bill she hopes to introduce in mid-December, as soon as bill filing begins.

Meanwhile, anti-abortion activists are gearing up to fight the repeal. Dauneen Dolce of the Right to Life Committee of New Mexico said she’s confident opponents can garner enough support to defeat it.

“Having that law in place, I think, is a safeguard for women, and it also prevents abortion being used as birth control,” she said.

The existing statute requires parental consent in the event a minor seeks an abortion and requires physicians to perform the procedure in a hospital. It also allows physicians who object to abortion on moral grounds to abstain from performing the procedure — all protections Dolce said should remain on the books.

Because the law is unenforceable, and because New Mexico has not enacted any abortion restrictions since 1973, the Land of Enchantment has become a haven for abortion seekers — especially as states from coast to coast have reined in access.

Abortion-rights advocates want to keep it that way. And, they said, November’s blue wave is fuel for the effort. Democrats likely captured eight seats in the state House on Nov. 6, pending a handful of recounts, giving them 46 of 70 seats.

Ferrary said she’s confident the bill will land on Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk, and Lujan Grisham has signaled she will sign it.

Ferrary introduced drafts of the bill during the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions. The 2017 measure failed to make it out of committee. During this year’s short legislative session, Gov. Susana Martinez did not allow the measure to be heard.

This time around, abortion-rights activists and lawmakers are referencing a new study that they say shows strong support in rural — and often socially conservative — New Mexico for a woman’s right to choose.

The survey, conducted in January 2017 by abortion-rights groups Young Women United and Strong Families New Mexico, polled 1,700 residents of rural counties. Seventy-seven percent of respondents reported they trust women to make abortion decisions for themselves, according to the report.

For Ferrary, who said she was drawn to the issue after witnessing friends struggle to access safe abortions in the early 1970s, keeping abortion legal and accessible in New Mexico is worth the fight.

“There was a lot of stigma surrounding having an abortion then, and a lot of risk,” she said. “We don’t want to go back to those days.”

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